[Hype Hype Hooray] Unearthing the True Message Behind “Monster Mash”

Hype Hype Hooray is a biweekly “critique” of the music scene and the blogosphere that feeds it, told through the lens of Jamie Hale, a journalist who likes music about as much as he likes scotch and a firm leather chair. Please enjoy with a grain of salt.

A sharp breeze blew through the cluttered streets of Somerville, Massachusetts in the brisk fall of 1947. While the world reeled from the aftershock of war, and carefully eyed the ominous rise of Communism, a young boy sat quietly in a Somerville theater, soaking up a much different world.

Young Bobby Pickett didn’t seem to belong in the culture of Somerville. Boys in town tended to grow into gangsters or athletes, and Bobby had no interest in either. What interested him was his father’s movie theater, where he would spend his time absorbing the monstrous worlds created by Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, of Vincent Price and Lon Chaney, Jr. He aspired to be an actor, to inspire the same love and fear his idols inspired in him.

As he sat in the chilly theatre, wistfully dreaming of the day his own face would be projected onto the screen, he could never have guessed his legacy would instead wind up in the world of music. While his face would later grace the silver screen, his name would be forever etched onto a tombstone labeled “Monster Mash.”

There’s no need to introduce the song–by now we all know it well. But as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the world’s one and only true Halloween song, I’ve decided to dig beneath the surface of the soil that covers the tune in its timeless grave. For many, it might be enough to know that the “Monster Mash” was simply a graveyard smash, to know that it did, in fact, catch on in a flash. But why aren’t we digging beneath the surface of the novelty hit? Why aren’t we excavating the coffin and ripping it open with the rusty crowbar it deserves? Join me, won’t you, in correcting this grave injustice, with: Unearthing the True Message Behind “Monster Mash.”

*                         *                         *

Bobby Pickett didn’t mess around. He didn’t ease us into his terrifying world of monsters, he threw us in and locked the door before we even realized what was happening:

“I was working in the lab late one night / When my eyes beheld an eerie sight / For my monster from his slab began to rise / And suddenly to my surprise”

Let’s stop right here. Now, this is an obvious allusion to Frankenstein–we all get that. But what are we really talking about? Does Frankenstein’s monster rise from the slab like Americans wanted to rise above Russia? Or could the monster be a Communist Russian himself, a misunderstood creature who could join our peaceful, democratic society if only he could learn to tame his insatiable thirst for destruction? Have we, a unified nation of Dr. Frankensteins, somehow given birth to this despicable creature through our own Utopic society? Do the Russians hate us because they cannot join our clearly superior world?

Perhaps, but as soon as Pickett’s monster rose, he did something odd, something very uncharacteristic of a monster, or even a Communist for that matter:

“He did the mash / He did the monster mash”

He. Did. The. Mash. To get a better handle on what exactly this means, we need to first understand what “the monster mash” is. If a 2007 video uploaded to Youtube by kjukjkukjku is to be believed, it is a dance that mashes up a host of popular dances from the era: the swim, the twist, the thing where you move your arms like you’re pulling two levers–they’re all included in the mash.

The fact that our Communist monster is doing “the mash,” a composite of America’s most popular dances, shows a true longing to fit in with our society. No longer does he kill out of spite! This monster rose as a reformed creature, who inspires not fear through death, but love through dance! Beneath the surface, of course, lies the anxious beating heart of a society sick of their cold, ruthless system, longing to run free in the sensible fields of capitalism. How could these people better show their changed hearts than by embracing the mash?

The monster mash, as I previously pointed out, was a graveyard smash that caught on in a flash. But how would the global community react to the sudden unification of two of the world’s most bitter rivals?

“From my laboratory in the castle east / To the master bedroom where the vampires feast / The ghouls all came from their humble abodes / To get a jolt from my electrodes”

They wanted in. After witnessing this monster’s jubilant dancing, the other monsters must have seethed with jealousy, quickly giving in to the strange allure of the mash. The vampires came from the master bedroom, strangely, and the ghouls from their humble abodes. They were soon joined by zombies, Wolf Man, and Dracula and his son. Igor showed up from downstairs and started jamming on the chains, while his baying hounds supplied some killer backing vocals. The impromptu party even anticipated an appearance by the coffin bangers themselves, with their vocal group, The Crypt-Kicker Five!

But who are these monsters, really? Looking at the theme of the song, it’s surprisingly easy to dissect: The vampires are clearly the British, with their effeminate “blehs” and creepy feasting, and the ghouls are the Africans–the “humble abodes” line clearly a xenophobic swipe at their impoverished communities. The zombies? French. Wolf Man? Germany. Dracula and his son? Prince Philip and his son, Charles. Igor and the baying wolves? All of the Middle East. The coffin bangers and The Crypt-Kicker Five? Vietnam (in an especially morbid and relevant reference to the ongoing war) and the five most significant Asian countries at the time: China, Japan, Cambodia, and North and South Korea.

Every monster in the land is came out to do the mash, to unite under one dance, for one singular goal of peace and harmony. But the song isn’t really about monsters getting together for a good time, it’s about the world finally realizing that America’s way is the right way. Shouldn’t everyone get the same opportunity young Bobby had in Somerville? Shouldn’t every child be able to sit in a cozy theater on a crisp fall day, instead of hunkering down in some muddy pit, slowly choking to death on the ashy residue of an imperfect societal structure? Shouldn’t we all forget our (un-American) differences and just mash?

Pickett, not one to paint too ideal a portrait, suddenly throws us a curveball:

“Out from his coffin, Drac’s voice did ring / Seems he was troubled by just one thing / He opened his lid and shook his fist / And said, ‘Whatever happened to my Transylvania twist?'”

The image couldn’t be more vivid. Prince Philip, top royalty in the United Kingdom–a place destined to become nothing but a bland anachronism–bears witness to the world linking arms with America, Britain’s own bastard child. Exasperated, he throws up his arms and asks “Whatever happened to my Transylvania twist?” In other words: “Doesn’t anybody remember when Britain was supposed to rule the world? One kingdom united under the crown?”

To that desperate cry from the past, the party has only one answer:

“It’s now the mash / It’s now the monster mash.”

Move over Dracula, it’s America’s party now. With that, and a final farewell from our humble narrator (who turned out to be Boris Karloff all along!), the party of joyful monsters fades to black. The reel clicks to an end, the lights come up and the audience looks around, only to realize that the world of the monster mash really was just a Utopia after all. In the light of day it seems silly to suggest that all the countries of the world could gather together under one ideal, to dance in harmony into the future. In fact, Pickett’s depiction of humanity as a group of monsters couldn’t be more spot on. Like the horrible creatures on which he grew up, we’re all destined to bicker and fight, to drop bombs and start wars.

But for three minutes, Pickett gives us all a chance to enter a different world, just as he did so many years before. In this world the monsters don’t fight over who blew up what, or which way is right. Once you get past the obvious anti-Communist propaganda, the message is sweet. When these monsters rise from their dark and hellish worlds, they don’t care about the conflict, all they want to do is mash.

There might be a reason we like to play the song ad nauseam each year. It might be that when we close our eyes and picture those monsters mashing, we picture ourselves, unifying in a perfectly impossible world. And when the song ends, and the playlist inevitably moves to “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” or “Devil With A Blue Dress,” we shake our heads and go back to the start. “If only the world could live in this moment forever,” we think. “If only we could forget all the hate and come together to do the mash–to do the monster mash.”

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